Metabolism of Organizations

This article was originally published on our Medium Platform Rethinking Organizations.

Inspiration can come from anywhere and creativity flourishes when you least expect it. I experienced this first hand recently while watching a Ted talk by Ruben Meerman called “How breathing and metabolism are interconnected”. He asks ‘where does the fat go?’ Then goes on to explain that when one loses weight, the majority of the fat is actually exhaled out during the process of breathing. So, the process in its basic form is:

Inhale
Metabolize
Exhale

The talk led me to ask whether we can analyze organizations through this lens. That is, can we examine organizations to see what they “metabolize”?

I believe that this perspective can provide us with a framework where qualitative data can be seen as a source for key insights.

While doing some research into whether the idea of metabolism had ever been applied to organizations before, I came across a case study in the Journal of Social and Administrative Sciences which studies the application of a similar technique to public organizations (Coccia, 2019). The approach there is mathematical while my aim is to think of organizations from a biological lens.

Organizations are organic

The contemporary view of organizations suggests that they are mechanical, and rigid structures that are programmed to act only in a certain way without any room for transformation. This view paints an inaccurate picture. Take a look at our current global climate. If organizations were the great machines they are made out to be they would have collapsed at the first sight of the crisis triggered by the pandemic. While in reality organizations adapted and evolved. This process hasn’t been smooth, nevertheless it is happening.

In this light it seems pretty obvious that organizations are indeed living organisms that are constantly changing to survive.

Now, with this new perspective of organic organizations let’s take a look at their “metabolism”. To reach such a framework we need to look at an organization’s operations in it’s bare minimum form. Doing so leads to the following breakdown:

Outlined below is what goes on in each of the three phases of an organization’s operations. Having a broader perspective of what is identified during each phase will allow for a clearer picture of the operations.

(Inhale) Take resources and raw materials,
(Metabolize) Combine these with their knowledge and labor,
(Exhale) Produce goods, services, and know-how.

Inhale

This step represents the beginning of an organization’s processes where inputs, resources, and the like are identified. In addition to physical resources, intellectual and financial resources can also be identified.

For example, looking at a factory producing shirts the obvious answer at this step would be to say that their inputs are thread, fabric, and machinery (physical resources). But upon further thought, inputs also include the knowledge of the designers who design the items (intellectual resources). An NGO for instance, would have their community of volunteers as their intellectual resource and their offices would be their physical resource.

Metabolize

This is the phase where resources are transformed into outputs. Here we can ask the following questions:

What is the intended output?
How do the inputs get transformed into output?
What unique processes make the organization’s outputs stand out?
How does it impact the society around it?

The shirt manufacturer would say that the way they transform inputs is by having designers sketch out a pattern, cut fabric accordingly and sew the final product. To answer why they are unique it could be said that they are hand sewn according to traditional methods hence, they are one of a kind pieces. They impact the society around them by giving employment to artisans. NGOs use their volunteer’s efforts to come up with ways to help the society they exist in. They achieve their end goal by arranging social help programs, workshops, etc.

Exhale

Finally, the end product needs to be listed. What exactly is the good or service that the organization provides? It is important to state not just the actual output like shirts but rather the value of these outputs. Since the shirts in our example use traditional methods the end product is not only a garment but also a means of providing a space for these skills to survive. Artisans would place great importance on this space and its impact goes beyond just the profits the shirts bring in. Similarly the end product of an NGO goes beyond an improved society, the value that this creates is the empowered individuals and equal footing for its members.

Metabolism follows a fixed process which only performs as well as the quality of the inputs that our body gets. In the same way, the better the inputs an organization has, the better the output it creates. Similarly, the broader the perspective of inputs identified the better the insights that emerge from the framework.

Through such a framework an organization’s operations can be broken down and analyzed bit by bit to better comprehend what happens in each step of their processes. Once we have a clear breakdown of operations it becomes easier to extract insights. Therefore, the metabolism of organizations can act as an analytical tool for us to understand their processes, gather key insights, and then utilize these insights to rethink organizations.

What do you think? Could we approach organizations from a biological point of view to help us analyze their actions and gain deep insights about them?